Tag Archives: pharmacy

C. OPII: Drugs in the 19th century pharmacy

If you have ever seen the Gibson & Son Pharmacy display at the Science Museum, then you know it’s not always easy to tell what is inside the numerous and bewilderingly labelled shop rounds. Pharmacists really had to know their abbreviated Latin as many of the medications sold in in the nineteenth century contained opium.

Late-nineteenth century glass shop rounds in Gibson and Son's Pharmacy. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

But how can you spot a bottle which contains opium? There are many ways to say opium on shop rounds. Bottles like we find in Gibson’s might say OPII., OPIO., RHOEA. PAPAVER. or even just the letter O!

Early 19th century stoneware drug jar for the storage of opium preparations. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

If you think that’s confusing, you aren’t the only one. It was a common occurence in the nineteenth century for pharmacists to confuse medicines, sometimes with fatal results. For example, a pharmacist in 1858 mistook PULV OPII TURC OPT (Turkish Opium) for Turkish Rhubarb (RHEI TURC) causing a patient to die of an overdose, and was faced trial for manslaughter. Opium sales weren’t tightly controlled either. Until 1868, anyone could buy or sell opium regardless of whether they were a qualified chemist or not

Late 19th or early 20th century green glass ribbed poison bottle for morphine hydrochloride. (Credit: Science Museum, London)

Opium was not the only dangerous drug in the pharmacy. Most glass bottles containing potentially poisonous drugs were made to look and feel different as a warning to potential users. We call these poison bottles, and they are usually made of ribbed, coloured glass. There are many other substances we now consider dangerous lurking in old medicine bottles, like mercury or arsenic, that we wouldn’t dream of using today.

This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

The Addictive History of Medicine: An Introduction

If you’ve ever been in hospital, there’s a good chance your doctor gave you morphine to help with the pain when recovering from a procedure. If you have ever had a bad cough, you might have been given a cough syrup with codeine in it. We don’t usually think of addictive substances as playing an important role in medicine, but the Science Museum’s pharmaceutical collection shows that these drugs have been widely used by doctors since ancient times. Opium in various forms has been used since the Greeks, although it rose to notoriety with the Victorians. From beautiful glassware, to the patent medicines which ushured in a new age of advertising, addicive drugs can be found throughout medical history.

An advertisement from 1935 extols the virtues of Chlorodyne, a medicine containing chloroform and morphine. (Credit: The Virtual Dime Museum)

In this blog series, we will be delving into the ‘Addictive History of Medicine’. That is, how addictive drugs played an important role in the evolution of medical practice. We will look at a range of topics from ancient drug preparations to the use of opiates for children, how to spot opium in 19th century pharmacy bottles and even consider Sherlock Holmes and his cocaine habit using the lens of our collections.

Late Victorian hypodermic syringe case for administering cocaine. (Credit: The Science Museum)

As Collections Information Officers, we spend much of our time working with the medical collections here at the Science Museum. We are currently carrying out a documentation project on the pharmaceutical collections we have in our small objects storage, and we became interested by the variety of addictive drugs from different time periods. We hope you are as fascinated as we are by these objects and their addictive history.

Rows of ceramic pharmacy jars in the Science Museum's stores. (Credit: The Science Museum)

This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.